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Editorial: How should the LAPD be using Tasers?

LAPD officers give a demonstration of tactics and policies used while operating tasers.

LAPD officers give a demonstration of tactics and policies used while operating tasers.

( Los Angeles Times)

‘Where’s the Taser?” asked Arnoldo Casillas on Wednesday. It was a reasonable question.

Casillas represents the family of Norma Guzman, who was fatally shot seven months ago as she approached two Los Angeles police officers with an eight-inch knife. Casillas had just showed reporters a video of the incident and was questioning why the officers hadn’t used a Taser or other non-lethal weapon to subdue Guzman.

It turns out, however, that there may have been reasons. Although Tasers are often billed as a great solution for police officers who need to use force — but not lethal force — the reality is, they don’t always work. In fact, at least eight of the 36 people shot by on-duty LAPD officers last year were hurt or killed in incidents in which officers said they tried to use a Taser without success, according to a Times report. LAPD officers fired Tasers 1,100 times in 2015, but the devices accomplished their goal — causing a suspect to submit to arrest — only about half the time.

There are a number of reasons why they failed to work. Tasers deliver shocks that are supposed to freeze muscles and stop bad guys cold, but sometimes people on drugs or suffering from mental illness don’t respond to the jolts delivered by a Taser’s metal probes. Other times the Tasers may not have been used properly. There’s a possibility that one particular model was less effective.

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Too bad. It would be a lot easier to reduce deadly police shootings if officers could rely on their Tasers to work all the time in a nonlethal manner. When used properly and when they work, Tasers undoubtedly can preserve lives. But they are not by themselves the magic solution to the LAPD’s new — and laudable — goal of reducing use of force incidents. That’s going to be hard work and will require a rethinking of the department’s culture and the retraining of officers.

Nevertheless, the proper role of Tasers is something the LAPD must confront now. It is poised to order about 4,400 more Tasers as part of a $31-million body camera deal with Taser International. Given the “de-escalation” policy adopted by the Police Commission last month, some officers may feel pressure to keep their guns holstered, even when situations call for their use. Conversely, officers might opt to use a gun when a Taser would suffice for fear the Taser will fail.

It shouldn’t be an either-or equation. Certainly, there are situations in which guns are required; in those cases, fumbling with a Taser to see if it works could put an officer’s life in danger. But there are also times when stepping back to reevaluate whether force is even necessary is an option. That’s what “de-escalation” means.

LAPD officials should figure out the correct role for Tasers before they vastly expand their reliance on the weapons

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